Can houses and apartments be eco-friendly?

Published previously in Green Lifestyle, Weekender, the Jakarta Post

A landed house or  an apartment starts to facilitate green living from the process of its creation. It has to do a lot with energy use. Price reflects the relative rate of energy used in constructing the unit. But, no less important is how its design determines the amount of energy used to live in it.

An appartment unit is obviously more energy-intensive, both in its construction and operation. You can relatively tell from its price and its operation fee. An appartment building more than four-floors high will need elevators, special pumps,  special structure and construction methods, and some other things that are not required in low rise appartment buildings. The higher the building, the more its structure costs; and the more machineries it requires to operate and to provide for emergencies. That is why high-density but medium-rise (4 to 6 floors) appartment buildings are considered optimal.

High rise appartment buildings not only are material-intensive—hence energy-intensive—in constructing them, but also in operating and living in it. The wind at higher sections could be very strong that you will find it uncomfortable to open the windows, thus forcing you to depend solely on AC. Even if the windows are open, there might not be correct and sufficient cross-ventilation because of  limited openings at the opposite walls. It is almost certain that you will have to depend of exhaust fans for toilets and ktchens. All that makes up your monthly electricity bill. You perhaps can still save electricity by always turning off lights when you do not need them. You can have more focused, direct lights, for certain activities. When you read, for example, use the reading lamp and turn off others.

The problem with appartment units is that they are difficult to modify once they are up. Your landlord or building manager might not allow you to change any wall. You might try to find ways to isolate your bedrooms to be the only spaces to have AC. If your lifestyle permits, making them smaller is better. Knocking down walls that divide other spaces makes air flow more freely.  A tropical wisdom is to always have all outside walls protected from being hit directly by sun and rain. Overhangs function just to do that, so the outside wall temperature will be more flat over the day.

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A house that is correctly situated with regards to the sun and prevailing winds, with appropriate windows and roof shape and materials, needs much less electricity (energy!) for AC and lighting at least for a good part of the day, even in a crowded city like Jakarta.

I am living in a little landed house in Central Jakarta without ever using AC—I don’t even have any installed. The secret is the free flow of air, not only horizontally but also vertically. My roof is of simple exposed clay tiles, that fit together enough to be rain-proof, but are loose enough to let air escapes through gaps between the overlapping tiles. Between November and February, I usually sleeps with a thin blanket on, as it is comfortably cool. The problem with mosquito is solved with mosquito net, which can be made quite fashonable in current interior design trend.

Living with less energy also means living organically. A house freely connected to the organic life outside will also experience some “organic revitalisation” out- and indoor. If you have yards, free them from any dead covering materials. Let them breathe. If you worry about dirts, you can cover them with loose pebbles or punctuated blocks so rain water can still seep into the soil. Grass is an option, but it needs direct sun light and continuous watering, because their roots are short—they do not grow deep into the ground to seek water.

The house will breathe together with the outside air that in crowded urban areas, however, might not always be clean. You might want to plant trees and bushes that filter the air passing through your house at different heights from the ground. Position the trees near doors and windows to efficiently filter the air going into your house. If you like fragrance, Indonesia is blessed with many fragrant flowers on trees and bushes. Correctly positioned, they will will really do bring into your house their natural fragrance. These plants will attract insects, and insects attract birds. You will soon notice birds singing in the morning.

There is an even more radical suggestion to use your yards: grow your own food there! Do compost your organic waste, and use it to fertilise your vegetables and tomatos.

Unless you use renewable energy to heat water, think also about showering with cold water, which is in fact generally healthier for our skins and overall freshness. If you can afford solar heater, choose only that without electrical converter that automatically turns it to use electricity when the sun does not shine enough. There are types that are really efficient even when the sun is not bright, and do not need any electricity back-up at all.

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